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Inchbald [née Simpson], Elizabethfree

  • Jane Spencer

Elizabeth Inchbald (1753–1821)

by Sir Thomas Lawrence, c. 1796

courtesy Agnew's, London

Inchbald [née Simpson], Elizabeth (1753–1821), writer and actress, was born on 15 October 1753 in Standingfield, near Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, the youngest child but one in the large family of John Simpson (d. 1761), farmer, and his wife, Mary (d. 1783), daughter of William Rushbrook of Flimpton.

Early life, marriage, and first acting roles

Elizabeth Simpson's family was Roman Catholic and had many friends in local Catholic circles. Her biographer calls her father's living a 'moderate farm', but does not indicate how well the family fared after his death. Educated with her sisters at home while her brother went to school, Elizabeth later remarked that the girls, but not their brother, learned to spell: this showed, she thought, that girls were more 'inclined to literature' (Boaden, Inchbald, 1.6). Her own literary interests were sharpened by her speech difficulties. Ambitious from an early age to become an actress, she worked hard to overcome her stammer, and in early 1770 attempted to get an engagement at the Norwich Theatre. Her family visited theatres and had acquaintances among actors, and there were dramatic readings at home; but Elizabeth's acting ambitions were discouraged. Her brother George became an actor in 1770. In April 1772 Elizabeth set off without permission for London, leaving her mother a defensive note: '[I] cannot prove my affection;—yet time may' (ibid., 1.18). She took lodgings and tried to get stage engagements, but soon decided to stay with her sister for protection. She encountered harassment, including sexual advances from the theatre manager Dodd, which she is said to have answered with a faceful of hot water; and within a couple of months she agreed to marry the actor Joseph Inchbald (1735–1779), who had been courting her since the previous year. Boaden remarks that he was not 'the object of her romantic love' (ibid., 1.96), and it is likely that she decided upon marriage as a way of gaining a protected entrance into her chosen profession. They were married in a Catholic ceremony on 9 June 1772 and by protestant rites the following day. Immediately afterwards they went to Bristol, where her husband had acting engagements, and where she made her début as Cordelia to his Lear on 4 September.

From 1772 to 1776 the Inchbalds toured Scotland with West Digges's theatre company, acting in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen. Despite her determined practising, walking the hills and shores with her husband listening to her recitals, Inchbald was never a very good actress, but she continued to perform a variety of roles and to supplement her wages by ‘walking on’ in the pantomime. The touring life was a hard one: travelling, they were caught in storms and had to walk long distances in the rain, and her health was undermined by the consequent attacks of ague and fever. Her marriage was difficult, too. She did not enjoy her role as stepmother to her husband's illegitimate son Robert, whose mother is not known. Robert was in the same company playing children's roles, and Elizabeth insisted on his lodging separately from the couple in Edinburgh. Her husband also had another, older son, George, whose mother may or may not have been the same as Robert's. Elizabeth and her husband quarrelled over money and her independence: he objected to her receiving her own salary separately from his, and to her friendships with other men, and she objected to his drinking sessions with friends.

In 1776 the Inchbalds left Digges's company after an incident in which Joseph had antagonized the audience. They now had to find alternative ways of earning a living. Joseph decided to study painting in France, while Elizabeth, who had already been studying the language, resolved to continue her French studies and to try and write for the stage. After their brief stay in France, abandoned because of their shortage of money, they were for a while destitute in Brighton, where they 'once went into the fields to eat turnips instead of dining' (Boaden, Inchbald, 1.68). At this point Elizabeth was still on bad terms with her mother, and the latter had refused to help the couple with money. Later Elizabeth seems to have been reconciled with her mother, visiting her in Standingfield several times before Mary Simpson's death in 1783. Her family connections were important to her, and she sent money to members of her family whenever she could, from her acting wages and later from the profits of her writing. Perhaps she hoped in this way to make up for running away to the stage and marrying Inchbald.

Later in 1776 the Inchbalds managed to get another theatrical engagement, with Younger in Liverpool. Here Elizabeth met the actress Sarah Siddons, who became a lifelong friend, and her brother, the actor John Philip Kemble. Her friendship with Kemble was intense, and sometimes quarrelsome; the relationship between the coquettish, passionate Miss Milner and her stern guardian in A Simple Story may be based in part on it. Like her other friendships it aroused her husband's jealousy. Siddons and Kemble seem to have been an intellectual stimulus to the incipient writer, who was educating herself during this period by reading in English, and in Latin literature in translation. She began writing a novel (possibly, but not certainly, an early version of A Simple Story), and corresponded with Kemble about it. She tried unsuccessfully to get this novel published in 1779.

The Inchbalds continued to change company, moving to Dimond's company in Canterbury, where Elizabeth acted with Thomas Holcroft, and then to the Yorkshire company led by Tate Wilkinson, who remembered her as 'my well-beloved, my beautiful Mrs. Inchbald' (Wilkinson, 1.277). Joseph Inchbald died suddenly in 1779. His widow carried on acting for Wilkinson for a while, and then spent the next few years acting in London and Dublin. With the freedom of widowhood came, once again, the pitfalls of being a young single woman on the stage in a society that judged women by increasingly stringent criteria of delicate behaviour. She enjoyed a lively social life, risking censorious comment on the one hand, and unwanted sexual attention on the other. Boaden recounts a number of flirtations enjoyed and proposals refused in these years.

Writing for the stage

Inchbald acted for seventeen years, taking a great number of different roles in Shakespearian drama, seventeenth-century comedies and tragedies, and more recent plays. Her leading roles in tragedies included the heroine of Jane Shore, Calista in The Fair Penitent, Monimia in The Orphan, and Desdemona in Othello. In comedies her roles included Violante in The Wonder, Angelica in The Constant Couple, and Indiana in The Constant Lover. She also played the cross-dressing heroine Bellario in Philaster. She acted in new plays of the 1780s, including Hannah Cowley's The Belle's Stratagem. She was painted as Lady Jane Grey and as the Lady Abbess in The Comedy of Errors; but apart from this she never seems to have become well known for any particular role, and her acting was never critically acclaimed. From at least the mid-1770s, she was considering writing as a possible alternative to this only moderately successful stage career. Her acting experience gave her a knowledge of stage techniques, and familiarized her with a wide range of stage plots and character types that she drew on for her own plays. Her stage experience was also put to use in her fiction, with its tight, dramatic dialogues and its use of themes from earlier dramatists. Her Shakespearian roles included Hermione in The Winter's Tale and Perdita in an adaptation from the same play, Florizel and Perdita; and in A Simple Story she used several motifs from this play including the tyrannical husband and father, the mother–daughter pair of heroines, and the jump in time.

Inchbald's first farces were submitted to the theatre managers Harris and Colman in 1781, but were refused. Eventually her farce The Mogul Tale, submitted to Colman under an assumed name, was accepted. Three English characters fly to the Orient in a balloon; the topical interest of balloon ascents helped make the play popular, and it had a good run at the Little Theatre in the Haymarket in July and August 1784. Inchbald acted in it herself—stammering with nerves on the first night—and, once its success was assured, declared her authorship and took applause for it from the stage. Colman paid her 100 guineas for the farce, and agreed to accept a comedy she had sent him previously, which he altered and put on at the Haymarket as I'll Tell You What in 1785. This five-act comedy of contemporary life was also a success, and as well as bringing her £300 for three benefit nights, it gave her a fame which increased her value, and her wages, as an actress.

From this time on Inchbald became a prolific and highly popular dramatist, whose most successful productions brought high financial rewards. She estimated her proceeds from Such Things Are (1787) as £900. She used her earnings to buy annuities, and by 1789, with an investment income of £58 a year, she was able to give up her acting engagement at Covent Garden and rely on her writing. Altogether nineteen of her comedies, sentimental dramas, and farces were performed at the London theatres between 1784 and 1805. Some were original plots; others were translations or adaptations from French plays, which she read in the original, and German ones, which she had to approach through English translations. Her work ranged from broad farce such as Appearance is Against them (1785), which was criticized for indecent expressions, to serious sentiment, as in Such Things Are, which has topical interest in its fanciful portrait of the prison reformer Howard as Haswell, a benevolent Englishman visiting Sumatra, freeing prisoners—one of them the beloved wife of the very sultan who incarcerated her by mistake—and generally sorting life out for the English expatriates. Like other dramatists of the time, Inchbald wrote comedy about marriage and its problems, and parent–child relations. To Marry, or not to Marry (1805) is a typically light-hearted exploration of its theme, ending by answering the question it poses with a clear, sentimental affirmative. She was interested in challenges to social convention: she included divorced couples in some plays, and a favourite character type is the witty, irreverent young lady, a role in which her friend the actress Elizabeth Farren specialized. One of her plays, Lover's Vows (1798) from August Kotzebue's Child of Love, gave sympathetic treatment to a ‘fallen woman’ and her illegitimate son, and has since become famous as the dangerous drama performed in Austen's Mansfield Park. However, there were strict limits to how far unconventionality could be explored in popular comedy at this date: All on a Summer's Day (1787) was hissed by the audience and criticized in the reviews for portraying a flirtatious, imprudent wife with sympathy. In general Inchbald managed to please her audience by combining relatively liberal social views with the maintenance of social order, often through the actions of a benevolent male authority figure. In Everyone has his Fault (1792), for example, Mr Harmony manages to reconcile Sir Robert Ramble to the virtuous former wife he had failed to appreciate, and Lord Norland to the daughter he had disowned on her marriage to a poor man; to induce Mr Placid to take a firmer line with his domineering wife, and to marry the old bachelor Solus to Miss Spinster. A strong theme throughout this play is the critique of aristocratic extravagance and the championship of poverty-stricken middle-class virtue, also found in Next Door Neighbours (1791), one of her French adaptations. Wives as they Were and Maids as they Are (1797) takes a sharp look at modern life, touching on the current questioning of female subordination; but though there is a memorably disturbing moment when a mistreated wife confirms that she fears her husband and refuses to say she loves him, the comedy concludes in a conservative way, with wifely submission praised and the witty, independent-minded Miss Dorrillon learning that she cannot manage without fatherly guidance.

Social and political opinions and other writing

Inchbald's social and political views were radical. Her close friends included Thomas Holcroft, who was tried in the treason trials of 1794, and William Godwin, until she broke with him over his marriage to Mary Wollstonecraft. In her plays she generally avoided any strong expression of her political sympathies, which would have endangered her popular success. When she did use drama to explore current controversy, the theatre managers refused to stage it. The Massacre, a historical play about the St Bartholomew's day massacre which made clear the parallels between this subject and events during the French Revolution, was never performed, and in 1792 she withdrew it from publication on the advice of Holcroft and Godwin. Although its main thrust is to expose the horror of the civil unrest that leads to the murder of Madame Tricastin and her children, the play is not anti-revolutionary: its portrait of Glandeve, the 'sworn friend to Liberty' (Boaden, Inchbald, 1.375) and tribunal president who rebukes the bloodthirsty Dugas, indicates support for a moderate, Girondist stance, and would have marked Inchbald as a revolutionary writer to a 1790s audience.

Once she was established as a playwright, Inchbald also returned to writing fiction, this time with much greater success, and her first novel, A Simple Story, was highly praised on its appearance in 1791. The £200 she got for it, though good pay for a novel at this time, compared badly with the proceeds from dramatic hits, such as the £700 she made from Every One has his Fault (1793). However, if novels were less lucrative than drama, they opened up new artistic opportunities, leaving her freer to develop her challenging views both on family and sexual relations and on class relations and political order. A Simple Story explores in much greater psychological depth issues and behavioural patterns that also preoccupied her in her plays: paternal authority as exercised by a stern father who rejects his dependants, and the challenge to that authority represented by a passionate and wilful young woman. Miss Milner's desire for a man who is a priest and her guardian makes her a disruptive heroine, and though the novel concludes on a conventional note, its overall effect is to disturb eighteenth-century complacency about the benevolence of paternal power in a way Inchbald's drama did not. Her second and final novel, Nature and Art (1796), was openly critical of English social institutions and class structures. Through the story of two brothers and their children, one selfish father–son pair, both of whom rise in a corrupt world, and one unselfish pair, condemned to poverty, Inchbald attacks the system of patronage, the administration of justice, and the cruelties and hypocrisies of sexual morality.

After her last comedy, To Marry or not to Marry, was performed at Covent Garden in 1805, Inchbald turned to critical and editorial work, producing The British Theatre, a twenty-five-volume collection of plays with critical introductions, in 1806–9; a seven-volume Collection of Farces and Afterpieces in 1809; and ten volumes of The Modern Theatre in 1811. She wrote an article about the novel for the periodical The Artist in 1807, but declined invitations to write for the Quarterly Review and to edit La Belle Assemblée.

For many years Inchbald was a well-known figure in London society, with a wide circle of friends and a lively social life. Her fair, freckled, sandy-haired, slender beauty was greatly admired and often painted. Her independent attitude, and her ability to nudge the limits of acceptable feminine behaviour without ever laying herself open to scandal, struck her contemporaries as remarkable. George Hardinge commented: 'She lives alone—her character has no tache upon it—and Mrs Siddons said she was as cold as ice: but I cannot believe it' (Nichols, Illustrations, 3.38). She kept meticulous records of her considerable earnings and shrewd investments; but despite her growing wealth she always lived very frugally, scrubbing her own floor and carrying her own coals. She kept in touch with members of her family, all of them in much poorer circumstances than she was, and helped them with money. For some time she was estranged from her sister Debby, who seems to have entered prostitution; and though they were reconciled before Debby's death in 1794, Inchbald felt guilty about her earlier attitude. The sympathetic portrait of Hannah Primrose in Nature and Art may owe something to her feelings about her sister. Another social outcast for sexual reasons, the actress Mary (Becky) Wells, found Inchbald a constant friend and source of financial support.

Final years

Inchbald's life was marked by tensions between, on the one hand, political radicalism, a passionate nature evidently attracted to a number of her admirers, and a love of independence, and on the other hand, a desire for social respectability and a strong sense of the emotional attraction of authority figures. If her own analysis of it contained anything like the psychological skill of her novels, it would have been a marvellous insight into the making of a woman writer in the eighteenth century. Unfortunately, the four-volume autobiography, which she began in 1795 and for which at one stage she was offered £1000, was destroyed on the advice of her confessor. She did leave extensive diaries, used by her biographer, which give a detailed account of her reading, writing, earnings, investments, moods, migraines, dizzy spells, flirtations, proposals, and friendships over fifty years. Some of these volumes still survive.

Inchbald's last years were spent in retirement and increasing seclusion. After what she called her years of no religious existence, from the late 1770s until 1810, she renewed her faith. She corresponded with and met Maria Edgeworth and Germaine de Staël, but on the whole she avoided socializing, spending her time instead in religious observances and studies. She died at Kensington House, Kensington, on Wednesday 1 August 1821, of 'an inflammation of the intestines' (Boaden, Inchbald, 2.278) and was buried on 4 August in Kensington churchyard.

Inchbald had great popular success and some critical praise for her witty comedies, several of which remained available to the nineteenth-century public in her own edited collection of English plays, The British Theatre. A Simple Story soon became her greatest claim to fame. It was frequently reprinted in the nineteenth century, and its appeal in an age of realist writing is indicated by Maria Edgeworth's praise:

I never read any novel that affected me so strongly, or that so completely possessed me with the belief in the real existence of all the people it represents … I believed all to be real, and was affected as I should be by the real scenes as if they had passed before my eyes.

Littlewood, 123

In the twentieth century, too, Inchbald was mainly remembered as a novelist, and is now receiving increasing critical attention, especially from those interested in women's literary history and in the revolutionary novels of the 1790s.


  • Memoirs of Mrs Inchbald, ed. J. Boaden, 2 vols. (1833)
  • T. Wilkinson, The wandering patentee, or, A history of the Yorkshire theatres from 1770 to the present time, 4 vols. (1795)
  • S. R. Littlewood, Elizabeth Inchbald and her circle (1921)
  • R. Manvell, Elizabeth Inchbald: England's principal woman dramatist and independent woman of letters in 18th century London (1987)
  • P. Sigl, ‘The Elizabeth Inchbald papers’, N&Q, 227 (1982)
  • P. Sigl, ‘The literary achievement of Elizabeth Inchbald’, PhD diss., U. Wales, 1980
  • G. L. Joughin, An Inchbald bibliography (1934)
  • J. Boaden, Memoirs of the life of John Philip Kemble, 2 vols. (1825)
  • C. Kegan Paul, William Godwin: his friends and contemporaries, 2 vols. (1876)
  • D. C. Sutton, Location register of English literary MSS and letters, 1 (1995)


  • BL, diaries, RP2266, 4730 [copies]
  • Folger, diary
  • V&A NAL, corresp.
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to William Godwin; letters to John Taylor [copies]


  • J. Russell, oils, 1788, priv. coll.
  • G. Dance, pencil drawing, 1794, NPG
  • T. Lawrence, oils, 1796, priv. coll. [see illus.]
  • G. Romney, oils, 1904, Tennant collection; repro. in R. S. Gower, George Romney (1904)
  • W. Daniels, engraving (after G. Dance)
  • S. De Wilde, oils (as Lady Jane Grey), Garr. Club
  • S. De Wilde, watercolour drawing, Garr. Club
  • S. Freeman, stipple (after T. Lawrence, 1796), BM; repro. in Monthly Mirror (1807), pl.
  • G. H. Harlow, pencil and sanguine drawing, Garr. Club
  • Heath, engraving (after portrait by G. Romney, 1904)
  • J. Opie, oils, priv. coll.
  • J. Opie, oils, Petworth House, Sussex
  • W. Ridley, engraving (after S. Drummond), repro. in Monthly Mirror (1797), pl.
  • Woodring, engraving (after J. Russell), repro. in European Magazine (1788), pl.
  • miniature (after J. T. Barber-Beaumont), Garr. Club
  • prints, BM
  • silhouette, Garr. Club

Wealth at Death

£5000–£6000: Boaden, Memoirs; DNB

Notes and Queries
P. H. Highfill, K. A. Burnim, & E. A. Langhans, , 16 vols. (1973–93)
J. Nichols & J. B. Nichols, , 8 vols. (1817–58); repr. (1966)